- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

After months of being ridiculed for not being more visible at Washington Wizards games, president of basketball operations Michael Jordan made a huge comeback in late February.

In the span of a week, Jordan got the Dallas Mavericks to absorb the remaining $39 million of Juwan Howard's monstrous contract, and he traded aging malcontent Rod Strickland to Portland, ridding the organization of a player who didn't want to be in Washington and further poisoning the Trail Blazers' already delicate makeup.

By putting the Wizards in position to be players in free agency in summer 2002 a task most NBA front office types deemed impossible talk has surfaced that Jordan could be named the NBA's executive of the year.

However, Jordan will hear nothing of it.

"The job isn't even close to being done," Jordan said of rebuilding a Washington franchise that has reached the playoffs just once since 1987. "I've said all along that we can't consider ourselves successful until we win, and that's still a way off. The key for us is to keep moving in the right direction. We've made some changes, but that definitely doesn't constitute us having a successful year."

True enough. On the court the Wizards are on pace for one of their least successful years. The team's victory over the New Jersey Nets on Saturday night was only its second Atlantic Division win this year. And only Jordan's old team, the atrocious Chicago Bulls (11-50), has a worse record than Washington (15-48).

But one thing has become clear about the state of today's NBA: Nothing not even the draft is more precious to improving a team than having available cap space to pursue free agents.

Last year the executive of the year award went to John Gabriel, the general manager of the Orlando Magic. The Magic failed to reach the playoffs last year, but under Gabriel's leadership they cleared enough cap space over the summer to acquire Tracy McGrady a starter for the East All-Stars this year and five-time All-Star Grant Hill, who's out for the year after ankle surgery.

Because of Jordan's moves, the Wizards expect to be under next season's projected $44-$46 million cap by about $5-$6 million. However, the following summer the team is expected to be as much as $20 million below the cap, which would put the Wizards in position to pursue players like Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Jason Williams.

"I know that Michael has taken a lot of criticism," Gabriel said. "But if you look at what he's done I don't think you'll get an argument from too many people that he's done some things that are going to make people look twice. He clearly has the hang of the job. What he's done will pay off in the future. But they look like they're heading in the right direction."

Although Jordan waited until the Feb. 22 trade deadline to move Howard, Jordan said he realized early in the season that the Wizards had to be dismantled. Before the season began, however, Jordan thought the Wizards might be good enough to make a run at the playoffs.

"You could tell early on that things were not clicking," Jordan said. "I can't nail it down to a particular time, but it was clear that it was not working. We had a plan. What was most important was that when the opportunity presented itself we had to make a move. We had to begin rebuilding to get some new chemistry."

On the day Howard was traded, Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton spent much of the day with Jordan in the Wizards' war room. He was stunned by how hard Jordan worked.

"It's amazing to see how well he understands all of that stuff and how hard he attacks it," Hamilton said minutes before Howard was moved. "Unbelievable."

For his part, Jordan isn't concerned with postseason awards. He says he will continue to work until the Wizards are a winning organization.

"The last thing I'm going to do is to pat myself on the back," Jordan said. "Unfortunately we have to go through this. I want to maneuver it where we set things up for the benefit of the organization down the road. All that means is that we've got to continue to do whatever we have to do to make this team better. Right now we're still a bad team. That's all that counts."

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